Friday, January 2, 2015

Shake Hands with an Angel – Meeting With Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire



Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge  
Recently I had the honor and privilege of meeting one of the outstanding humanitarians and outspoken advocates for Human Rights of our time -Lieutenant- General Honorable Roméo A. Dallaire, (Ret’d)  Senator at the York University.   His reputation reaches far and wide. Many Sri Lankans know him as the commander of the UN Mission in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide. Although he is a Canadian Icon he belongs to the entire world that believe in peace and equality. Today he is serving as a Senator in his native Quebec and dedicated his life to eradicate the plague of child soldiers around the globe.

Peace Keeping Mission in Rwanda
Gen Romeo Dallaire served in the UN peace keeping mission in Rwanda during its darkest period. He encountered the worst of humanity in Rwanda and oversaw the murder of 800,000 human beings. In front of his eyes genocide took place and the Civilized World did nothing to prevent it. He was left alone to face the consequences. He went for the UN peace mission in 1993 returned in August 1994 as a tormented and disappointed man with a heavy emotional baggage.

Often peace keeping missions are tougher than the combat missions. Peace keepers undergo tremendous physical and psychological pressure following the restricted orders to intervene.  Sometimes they are compelled to watch atrocities take place in front of their eyes and they are powerless to prevent it. Many peace keepers suffer from psychological repercussions after their deployments. In 2006 the commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, 58-year-old Urano Matta Bacellar committed suicide following depression that he suffered during the peace keeping mission.
Gen Romeo Dallaire too became a victim of his hazardous peace keeping mission in Rwanda.  His world was falling apart and he had to fight to regain his sanity. He never gave up. He triumphed against all odds. Gen Romeo Dallaire’s story is full of courage humanism, and genuine effort to fight for those who were deprived of basic human rights.


My Rwandan Friend Denzel
For me Gen Romeo Dallaire‘s story has a special meaning. Still I am anxious about my Rwandan friend Denzel. Denzel was one of my batch mates at the Vinnitsa National Medical University in Ukraine. He had come from Kigali Rwanda. “I cannot forget your name” said Denzel when he first met me in 1986. “Your name is similar to my country’s name, your name is Ruwan and my country is Rwanda what a nice coincidence? Indeed he was a pleasant guy with full of personality. He danced elegantly to the song “September” that is sung by the Earth Wind and Fire. I did not know whether Denzel was a Tootsie or a Hutu, all  I knew was Denzel was a nice human being and he was my friend. After finishing his medical degree in 1993 he went to Rwanda and most certainly worked as a Doctor. His life must have been changed by the events that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 when ethnic clashes broke out. I don’t know whether Denzel is still alive. If he is dead let his soul find peace and happiness according to his religious beliefs.


Rwandan Genocide and Gen Romeo Dallaire
Gen Romeo Dallaire was the commander of the UN Mission in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide. When he first came to Rwanda he realized that the tensions were mounting. Rwandan genocide took place before his very eyes. Over 800,000 people perished within 100 days. The killing rate was eight hundred murders per day and nearly 333 people per an hour. Every second five people died and the Western nations did nothing to stop it. He was ordered not to intervene. The Rwandans were abandoned to their fate. Despite his orders to withdraw from Rwanda Gen. Dallaire stayed with the helpless population. He was forced to become a spectator to genocide.

Gen Dallaire did his utmost and saved many lives as possible with his limited resources. Constantly he pleaded the UN to send more peace keepers and send emergency rations. The things were moving very slow giving him enormous mental pressure and frustration. The slaughter continued. Several times he disobeyed his high command when he was ordered to withdraw from Rwanda. He was the only help and link for the abandoned Rwandan people.  He stayed until the helps arrived.  He left Rwanda with severe emotional scares. Rwanda was a failure by humanity to stop the genocide, despite timely warnings by people like Gen Dallaire.

Gen. Romeo Dallaire came back to Canada after his peace mission and tried to settle down.  But things were hard. Rwandan peace mission was a moral minefield to Gen Dallaire. He could not forget the images of slaughtered human corpses on the roads and in rivers. He heard the outcry of the helpless victims. He could smell the decomposing human flesh.  

Following overwhelming psychological tension Gen. Romeo Dallaire moved towards negative stress coping style. He started abusing alcohol. The doctors diagnosed that Gen. Romeo Dallaire was suffering from PTSD.  The Canadian Army discharged Gen.  Dallaire under medical grounds. Hence his 35 year distinguished military career was over. Following pain and psychological torment he attempted to end his life.

Although the illness wrecked him it could not destroy his deep love and respect for humanity. He found a new powerful weapon to fight back his illness. He dedicated his life to become a human rights promoter with genuine devotion. He revealed the entire world what took place in Rwanda and his efforts to stop the genocide. His conscience was clear. He adopted positive stress coping style, went for psychotherapy and continued his medication. Within a short period he was able to achieve a remarkable progress. He was able to keep his PTSD symptoms at bay. He was heading towards a complete recovery.

In 2006 on the Holocaust Memorial Day Gen Romeo Dallaire was giving an interview to Jamie Owen.  He revealed his Rwandan experience adding the following remarkable words which captured the hearts and minds of the people.

“  One of the instruments that the extremists would use during the genocide to gain more food and water and medical supplies, would be to use very young children; five; six and such ages, put them in the middle of the road and keep them there in order to stop the convoys with those resources coming through.  If the children moved away they simply killed them outright with their machetes.  And so on one day I was going between the lines, and up ahead there was a child of about three or four years old, and in no-man’s-land we [were] not going to abandon a child, so we slowed down expecting an ambush, we stopped, jumped out with a couple of soldiers there was nobody. We went around to the huts to see if someone would take care of this child, and all we found were bodies of people who had been killed five or six weeks earlier on, decomposing and half eaten by wild dogs and rats, and as we looked around we lost the child.  So we went back and found him in a hut where there were two adults male, female, and some children in advanced stages of decomposition.  He was sitting there as if it was home.  I took the child and I brought him into the middle of the road and I looked at him, and this young three or four year old boy with a bloated stomach and scars and dirt in rags, flies all around him, but then I looked into his eyes, and what I saw in the eyes of that child was exactly what I saw in the eyes of my young son before I left Canada.  They were the eyes of a human child and they were exactly the same.  We have a responsibility to protect, we do not have the right to assess and to establish a priority within humanity, for all humans are human and not one of us is more human than the other.”


 The Hotel Rwanda
The movie Hotel Rwanda was a message film and a gripping piece of drama that disclosed the outside world the magnitude of planned genocide that occurred in Rwanda. The film recounted the true story of a courageous simple man Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) the assistant manager of Milles Collines Hotel who became another Oscar Schindler.  Being a Hutu Paul Rusesabagina risked his life to save fellow Tutsis from the extremist Hutu groups. For me the story of Gen Romeo Dallaire and Paul Rusesabagina were highly inspirational and it led me to write a poem – The Eye Witness of Hotel Rwanda.


The Eyewitness of Hotel Rwanda

From a tiny window of   hotel Rwanda
I saw two tribes killing each other
Man against man
Brother against brother
I witnessed killings and massacre

The insane evil Radio
Controlled the minds of people
Constantly giving commands
Go go go
Go and kill cockroaches

The good men of yesterday
Turned in to savages
No remorse or guilt
Seeking blood and human flesh

I saw little orphans in fear of death
Looking for safe places
No place to run
No place to hide  
They were abandoned by the rest of the world


Shake Hands With the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Rwandan experience was an eye opener for General Romeo Dallaire. He found an emotional cri de coeur in his book Shake Hands with the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. In this book Dallaire describes the vivid events that took place during the genocide and he further says that even the peace had been murdered in that gorgeous African country.  He truly counts himself among its casualties.

Once giving an interview to Alex Roslin Gen. Dallaire remarked.
“The devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people we were supposed to protect.  “I know there is a God,” he replied, “because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil.” 
His outstanding book “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2004. Shake Hands with the Devil is now a motion picture directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Roy Dupuis and James Gallanders.

Gen Romeo Dallaire ‘s Life Long Mission – Child Soldiers Initiative
After Rwanda Gen Romeo Dallaire has given a leadership in a project to develop a conceptual base for the elimination of the use of child soldiers. In his best-selling book “They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children,” Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire suggests to promote Zero Force, an international campaign to eradicate the use of child soldiers. His is determined to fight to eradicate the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts. It is a mission to which Gen Dallaire has committed himself for the rest of his life.

According to the Canadian International Development Agency, worldwide, in any given year, over 300,000 children under 18 are exploited in armed conflicts as child soldiers and sex slaves.
 Gen Romeo Dallaire is now extensively working on the problem of war-affected children, and has visited countries where children are used as a weapon of war. Gen Dallaire emphasizes that there are two words that should never go together: “child” and “soldier”. He further says that his ultimate aim is to eradicate the thought of using children as weapons of choice in conflicts.

Michel Chikwanine was a former child solder who found refuge under Gen Dallaire’s foundation.  Michel Chikwanine became a child soldier when he was 5 years old. He was abducted in 1993 by a rebel militia in Congo. He was given a firearm and forced to commit unspeakable atrocities. His childhood was stolen by the warmongering adults. Today he is living in Toronto but still hounded by the awful memories of bloody war.  There are thousands of ex child solders like Michel Chikwanine who are struggling to integrate in to the mainstream society. Gen Dallaire with his crusading spirit works in the child soldiers initiative. He is fully dedicated to this noble project which he has made his life’s mission to end the use of children in conflicts and wars.

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